What if social and media will be separated, just like Snap says? That could have huge implications for the media system

Are social media companies building firewalls between their social platform and media functions? A few signals point to this scenario. This has implications for users, brands and regulators.

On Wednesday Snap announced an anticipated revamp of the Snapchat app. The app is being split into two distinct sections, one for personal chats with friends and the other for media and influencers.

In a post on Axios, the company said it is “separating social from media”. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel clearly positioned the redesign as a play against Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. These Snap competitors rely heavily on a unified newsfeed, bringing together brands, friends, media and other players.

In the Axios post, Spiegel says these “personalised newsfeeds” have come “at a huge cost to facts, our minds and the entire media industry”. He suggests the “fake news” phenomenon is a result of this, as people share funny, provocative or untrue posts with friends and don’t mean it to be taken seriously or as a fact:

“Content designed to be shared by friends is not necessarily content designed to deliver accurate information”.

Snap’s messaging is clearly designed to bolster its position in the market against Facebook, Google and Twitter. All three have lately been battling a torrent of weird, offensive or downright fake content.

Just last week a group of consumer brands pulled their ads from Youtube after it emerged the site was showing their ads alongside disturbing images of children. Facebook is in the middle of a Russian propaganda scandal while Twitter has been battling trolls and rampant harassment for years.

Despite the obvious branding attempt, Snap might be onto something.

The ongoing scandals around questionable or offensive content is clearly having an impact on the big social media companies.

In October, Facebook ran a test in six countries. The company suddenly removed unpaid content from all pages from its users’ news feeds. In Slovakia, some media pages saw their Facebook reach diminish by two-thirds as a result.

The test was actually pretty close to what Snap is doing: Facebook tested separating social from everything else, including media. Facebook also recently rebranded its video tab as Facebook Watch and begun investing heavily into original content. Youtube, meanwhile, is tightening rules around content aimed at kids. It’s also already running a separate, “kid-friendly” version of Youtube called Youtube Kids.

All this is fundamentally aimed at one thing: creating a clean and safe environment for advertisers. Content controls are meant to keep out the fringe. But separating social and media is about something more. It’s about how big social finally might admit that they are both platforms and media companies, but separately.

The big fight recently has been about how Facebook, Google and Twitter should be regulated.

If the are technology companies, like they now say, they should be regulated as neutral platforms that have no responsibility over the content they transmit, much like phone companies before them.

But Facebook and its ilk are not true neutral technology companies, say the critics. Instead, they should be regulated as media companies. And media companies usually, depending on country, carry responsibility for the content they host or transmit.

In my native Finland, for example. being a publisher means you have to handle corrections, have an editor-in-chief and adhere to a bunch of other regulations.

Even though tech companies have begun to commission their own content (Snap, Facebook and Google are all ordering TV shows of their own) they have resisted media regulation. But as the uproar over fake news gets louder and the companies move further into content creation the change could be hard to resist.

The solution? Separate social from media.

By doing that, the companies achieve two things. First, they paint their platform business (social) as a separate entity. If media content is in a separate section or a standalone app, perhaps media regulation could only be applied there?

Second, they get a cleaner, more controlled environment for advertisers. If you claim to be running a neutral algorithm over all your content you can never claim that advertisers are safe from offensive content. But if you build a separate “media” section and limit access there, you might assure them to spend even more.

Snapchat is already limiting access to its Discover media platform, allowing only major brands like NBC or Cosmopolitan to have a channel there. It’s not that difficult to image a similar Youtube Clean for top content producers or a Facebook Watch with strict access controls but still a huge selection of content. The result would be a controlled and “clean” media feed, much like Netflix but for all media.

Perhaps still afraid to implement these controls themselves, the firms are partially outsourcing them.

Twitter, Facebook and Google have signed up to bring in “trust indicators” to go alongside their content. Facebook is also partnering with 3rd party fact-checkers to label “disputed” news stories — and perhaps use this information to push them lower in newsfeed. But the effect of this is in dispute and the changes seem incremental at best.

The solution: separate social from media.

Thus, a possible scenario for social media platforms is the one now being adopted by Snap: building a firewall between the “social” platform side and the more controlled “media” side.

With linear TV ad money largely still waiting to move over to digital, there’s a lot to be gained by building a credible alternative with quality content and no distractions to attract this money.

On the other hand users could also be driving this change.

With social interactions becoming increasingly crowded out by commercial messages and page posts, social could be transforming into a more closed environment. Less social broadcasting, more intimate sharing. Snapchat and Whatsapp are the cases in point in this shift, like Spiegel points out in his post.

Separating the increasingly professional “influencer” and celebrity content and bundling it with media brands leaves room for social interaction. That interaction could include sharing media but it would not _be_ media, because media would be elsewhere.

So social and media, two separate things?